Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-awaited new film isn’t lacking at all in ambition, but it could offer its audience a better chance of following what’s going on.
Early on in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending espionage action flick, Tenet, a scientist character is advising John David Washington’s perplexed protagonist how to understand the concept of inversion, a process by which something or someone moves backwards through time. ‘Don’t think about it,’ she states, ‘feel it.’
That line, simple as it may be, neatly summarises the film that follows (and as a consequence, lots of us have quoted it in reviews). Should you try to think your way through Nolan’s latest slice of cerebral action cinema, you may well find yourself leaving unfulfilled and girding yourself for multiple viewings. However, as an experience; as something simply to behold and surround yourself with, Tenet is a dizzyingly arresting achievement.
It’s something of a shame then, that the director, so feted for his ability to marry both of these elements together so successfully in previous films, is unable to strike a slightly finer balance here.
As the trailers have spared all but the tiniest plot details, I won’t spoil them here, apart from to say that the narrative on the surface draws from Bond-style espionage thrillers with all the twists, turns and trademark beats that you’d expect from that genre. Nolan normally screens classic films for his cast and crew from the genre in which they are working, but with Tenet, he demurred, believing that the spy film is so ingrained within both creators and audiences, that we don’t need to be reminded of it.
He’s right too, at least regarding his own familiarity with the subject matter. In the film’s first hour, Nolan confidently moves through a series of conventions and story beats that take us across the world, introducing us to suave characters, thrilling action set pieces, exotic locales and awe-inspiring stunts the likes of which we’ve seen before, not least in the world of 007.
Shady art deals, villainous arms dealers, brutal fistfights, gentlemen spies and trademark Nolan grand action sequences are all present and correct and it’s terrific fun, perhaps Nolan’s most direct homage to a genre yet, with the possible exception of Dunkirk. A brief mention too must go to Kenneth Branagh for his sinister turn as the villainous Andrei Sator, although all of the cast put in good work.
At the plot unfolds though, the director gradually introduces us to what is surely his most ambitious attempt yet to reframe the nature of time within the world of his films, grafting a high-concept time travel (or time reversal, to be exact) premise onto an increasingly twisty tale of international spy frolics. Somewhere near the film’s midpoint, the old-fashioned notion of linear time moving in just one direction becomes obsolete and a temporal free-for-all ensues. It’s visually dazzling, and great fun to watch, as time flows forwards and backwards, but can become incredibly difficult to follow narratively. Especially when the storytelling in-between is done in (often ineffective) bursts of quick-fire exposition, competing with the now-familiar shudderingly loud score, this time by composer Ludwig Göransson.
For the bulk of his career, Nolan has excelled at manipulating time, collaborating with long-time editor Lee Smith to craft exquisite mosaics in films like Dunkirk, Inception and The Prestige that were poetic in their construction, with the use of parallel sequences in particular, drawing audiences towards themes and ideas. In Tenet, Nolan largely eschews this crafted approach, choosing instead to violently rend time asunder, reassembling in a jarring fashion as time runs both forwards and backwards, often simultaneously. Whilst visually effective and conceptually interesting, it lacks the polish of his previous films. Worse still, it also makes the third act of the espionage thriller’s narrative very hard to follow.
There’s another problem that Tenet struggles with too. John David Washington’s protagonist is never fleshed out beyond a simple set of ideals. Whilst he operates effectively as an action hero, he lacks the depth and emotional vulnerability needed to anchor the audience, who have by this point been cast adrift in a big ball of wobbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, to the more human elements of the story. As such, the film’s closing moments, which are narratively clever, lack the intended impact. There’s a visceral satisfaction nonetheless, seeing grenades implode and bullets fly back into guns, whilst time flies paradoxically both forwards and backwards.
There’s little doubt that Tenet, which certainly hits the mark as an action film, will improve upon second and third viewing. However, I suspect that Nolan, who is working with an increasing number of new crew and creative personnel on Tenet, may have needed the experience of longtime collaborators to create a film with greater finesse, in what is without doubt his most ambitious, but most flawed project thus far.
Tenet is a very enjoyable watch, and making sense of its story will warrant repeat viewings, but it’s often as frustrating as it is engrossing.
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